Top critical review
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most of this appears for free on author's web site
on March 10, 2013
Topgrading is a 12-Step program for increasing the percentage of "A Players" you hire from an average of 25% to some remarkable number--70%, 80% or even 90%. I found the parts of the book that I read repetitive and a bit breezy. There's a free 80-page e-book on the author's web site for those who value their time and money.
The impressive 65,000 number that appears in the book refers to Dr. Smart's interviews with "...6,500 managers, with an average of 10 jobs each...". These managers report a 25% success rate in hiring high performers.
The amazing 70-90+% post-Topgrading success ratios seem to come from Topgrading Step 12--"ANNUALLY MEASURE YOUR TOPGRADING SUCCESS". Every new hire is graded at their first anniversary by a committee of four "...in relation to the stated accountabilities" (page 177.) At this one-year point, employees are either considered an "A Player" or they are put on a performance improvement plan. So I have to ask, isn't just meeting expectations the very definition of a "B Player?" Can someone who's been through Topgrading tell me if managers typically set unrealistic goals to replace borderline performers or do they dumb down the goals to avoid the consequences?
So lets talk about the Topgrading TORC--the Threat of the Reference Check. With Topgrading, your candidates will be asked to arrange a "personal reference" call with every prior supervisor. The author thinks it will only drive away C Players--30 candidates, 20 complete applications--the TORC flushed out 10 problems, simple as that. Might it also repel the very best candidates as well? The scientist with the breakthrough research, the out-of-the-box thinker who will have a game-changing idea for your web site, the empathetic service rep who can calm even your pickiest customers and retain a key account--these people may just walk away. That Dr. Smart uses the rather outdated "lines of code per day" metric in an example about programmer productivity suggests he may be more familiar with sales than software development. (By the way, if you worked for a Topgraded company and cannot get a "personal reference" from your former supervisor, search the book for the word "hypocrite" to see why.)
Then there's the new Topgrading Snapshot to consider. At the outset of Topgrading, a one-page Topgrading Snapshot is needed for every current employee. You can register on the author's web site to try this for yourself. (Two free Snapshots come with the physical book--a $50 value.) According to one happy customer, the Topgrading Snapshot allows you to screen candidates in 10 seconds without reading the entire resume. The value of any visual exhibit depends on how faithfully it represents the important data--what is included, what is excluded, how information is encoded to colors plus the juxtaposition, shape and area of the graphical elements. Be sure to run a Snapshot on one of your high-performing women who took maternity leave to nurture her offspring. Don't forget to Snapshot Ol' Charlie (Smart's character who is fired for not doing his job, but who might sue because he's over 40.) Pick any good experienced worker. See how the Snapshot crams his 30 years of experience into the same space as a candidate half his age, making each of his job polygons smaller--like a job hopper. In fact, run the Snapshot on all your high performers and see which ones wouldn't make it to the interview stage. In the software arena, this is called a regression test. It tells you if the changes you plan to implement are going to break something that's already working.
My definition of an honest salesman is someone who tells you what you want to hear over and over and over again until you stop listening--then takes that opportunity to tell you the truth. Topgrading--hire the best. Topgrading--no need to retain average workers. Topgrading--it turned our company around. Topgrading--scare away the charlatans. Topgrading--70% success promoting the right people--no more Peter Principle. Topgrading--it's at a tipping point, get on board. Amid the endless branding of Topgrading, the author does reveal a hiring "secret." Dr. Smart found some managers who reported hiring mostly A players. Even before Topgrading, these savvy managers knew how to get over 50% high performers. I won't reveal the secret. Why? Because the author had the decency to include this nugget in the third edition, undermining his arguments for the rest of his elaborate program.
Frankly, if the 12 Steps in Topgrading seem novel to you, maybe you need someone to shake up your HR department. But before turning your company over to Topgrading, wouldn't it be prudent to ask Dr. Smart some detailed questions? Perhaps you should make him fill out his own job application to show you how well it works. You will need the full list of prior clients going back to high school with dates and total billing (with certified financial statements to reconcile the data.) Is the relationship ongoing or terminated? What is the "reason for leaving"--the Snapshot allows: My Choice [green], Mutual Decision [mauve], 100% Employers Choice (terminated) [red], Not Leaving [green], Other Circumstances [grey]. What will the client say about Smart's work? The Snapshot "Boss Rating" allows: Excellent [green], Very Good [green], Good [mauve], Fair [red], Poor [red], and Impossible to Provide [grey]. Once you've seen the history, ask him to arrange a reference call with several clients of your own choosing.
Finally, a word about glowing case studies. 35+ companies are profiled--out of how many Topgraded companies? Where's the full data set? Managers love to take credit for growth, but we all know people who were successful due to circumstances. (I've been that person.) When your company is going like gangbusters, is it your "A Players" that made it happen or did years of patience, effort and teamwork by everyone else hold the company together long enough to finally enjoy some favorable market conditions or a new product launch? Do your salespeople go to Hawaii for reaching their quotas while the engineers go home to read technical journals? If Smart helped 35 companies in decades of work, that's great, but a discussion of the challenges is also in order.
If you're thinking I'm alone in my critical opinion of this HR approach, you might want to check out the reviews of the prior edition of this book to expand your sample size.